BRAHMS: String Quartets Nos. 1-3; Piano Quintet in F minor, Op. 34* / Belcea Quartet; *Till Fellner, pianist / Alpha 248
After the Alexander String Quartet, my favorite such group is the Belcea Quartet, headquartered in London where its leader, Corina Belcea, was the winner of the 1991 Yehudi Menuhin prize and actually studied under Menuhin himself. Their set of the complete Beethoven Quartets are almost as good as those of Alexander, but not quite enough for me to make them my number one choice. In the Brahms Quartets, which so far Alexander has not yet recorded (although they have recorded the Brahms String Quintets with violist Toby Appel, and they are fabulous!), I would at this juncture have to place Belcea’s recordings at the very top.
Like so many modern quartets, they play with a taut, linear style, but as those who have studied some of Brahms’ favorite musicians realize, this is not incorrect style in performing his scores. Brahms’ favorite conductors of his symphonies, for instance, were Fritz Steinbach and Felix Weingartner, who played them in a taut, driving fashion, and not such “wandering strays” as Hans von Bülow or Felix Mottl. What sets the Belcea Quartet aside from so many similar groups, however, is their willingness to shade and color the music with a greater range of dynamics than you normally hear. As a for-instance, I began playing this set of Brahms right after reviewing the Mendelssohn Quartets Nos. 5 & 6 by the Escher String Quartet. As good as the Eschers were, there were several moments—particularly in the fast movements—where I wished for just a bit of relaxation from the metronomic tempo they set. Here, in these Brahms performances, Belcea gives you just that, and right from the opening “Allegro” of the Quartet No. 1.
What distinguishes the Alexander Quartet from the Belcea, in my view, is a greater exploration of tone color and warmth. But of course this is a very subjective thing, and not to everyone’s liking. Of course, part of this may have something to do with the recorded sound: the microphones used, their placement, even the acoustics of the room in which they are recorded. All these things play a part in our emotional reaction to their recordings, and there were several moments in Belcea’s Beethoven cycle where I felt it was exactly that, a slightly cooler sound, that separated their performances from those of Alexander’s.
There are many critics and musicians who feel that comparisons are odious and often unfair, but I’m not one of them. You have to understand how many string quartet recordings I’ve heard in my life, from the 1920s products of the Rosé, Léner, Amar, Pro Arte and early Budapest Quartets right up to the present, and how not just different musical approaches but different techniques, instrumental sounds and recording acoustics affect these performances. On the other hand, I will say right away that a warmer sound does not always help all string quartets musically. The Juilliard Quartet’s 1960s recordings of the complete Beethoven series had wonderfully rich, warm sound, yet their style was too linear, with almost no noticeable features of dynamics changes and a somewhat tough and tight in their playing. That being said, I couldn’t help but feel that a little more warmth in the sound quality of these recordings would have improved my emotional reaction to Belcea’s approach, as it has done in the Alexander’s recordings of the Quintets. A perfect example is the third movement of the Quartet No. 1, where their playing is stunning in its almost infinitesimal command of light and shade, with every possible light in the spectrum in between. The recorded sound, though reflecting all of these shifts perfectly, still sounds a little too cool in the end. Thus I have to mitigate my wholehearted approval of Belcea’s playing style, which is often near perfection, with Alpha Records’ clinical sound.
But Alpha has promoted Belcea unstintingly, allowed them the opportunity to record what they want, thus I can’t say anything negative about them. The listener must simply understand that any criticism I make of the sonics does not extend to what is surely some of the best string quartet playing in this or any other century. To illustrate what I mean, consider the criticism so often leveled against Brahms, that his music sounds too carefully planned and organized, that there is seldom as much spontaneity or inspiration in the music as there is in Beethoven. This is certainly true as it is true of Mozart’s quartets, but a superior group of performers can overcome this “deficiency,” if such it is, if they approach the music completely from the inside. This is what Belcea does, bringing not just an intensity to their performances (nearly all of today’s taut-but-exciting quartets can do the same) but also surprising moments of tenderness, sadness, joy and elation. One continues listening as they progress through these works, no matter how familiar they are, in order to hear just these sort of details emerge with surprising emotional commitment. And Belcea almost never disappoints.
By the way, in support of what I said earlier regarding musical style in Brahms, it was Wilhelm Furtwängler who insisted that J.S. Bach was an early Romantic but that Brahms was a classicist. How about that, huh? That being said, I found it interesting that there were even more Romantic touches in Belcea’s performance, with pianist Till Fellner, of the Quintet in F minor. Also, to my ears, an even higher degree of passion. They really take this music by the throat and shake it up, which is all to the good; this almost sounds like an Alexander Quartet performance. Interestingly, Fellner himself plays with a crisp modern style, nuanced in places but not quite as Romantic in feel as the string players; they sort of lead him rather than vice-versa. Nevertheless, it’s a great performance, the best I’ve yet heard of this piece. They almost make it sound like a Beethoven piano quintet, and that’s saying something. In some ways this is the highlight of this set, powerful and moving.
You absolutely can’t go wrong obtaining this set. These are performances that not only impress you at first hearing but also stay with you long after the last notes have died away. Bravo, Belcea!
— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley